Interview with Elvis Costello about For The Stars
NY Times, 2001-05-21
- Allan Kozinn
Elvis Costello: 'Let's Make Music
By ALLAN KOZINN
RELATED ARTICLES At a glance, "For the Stars," the new recording by the opera singer Anne Sofie von Otter and the rock star Elvis Costello, may seem profoundly star-crossed. Ms. von Otter, the Swedish mezzo-soprano, is most admired for her supple performances of art songs. Mr. Costello burst into the rock world as an acerbic, if uncommonly literate, representative of British punk. The image of "an angry young man" is what Ms. von Otter had in mind when she met Mr. Costello in the early 1990's, although by then he had mellowed and made excursions into country music, jazz and classical music.
What has not changed about Mr. Costello is a musical integrity that has kept his eclectic adventures from becoming mere dabbling. That and Ms. von Otter's musicality and her way of illuminating a song's emotional core help make the dark and introspective "For the Stars" (Deutsche Grammophon469 530-2) a moving album where most collaborations between classical and rock musicians are grand failures of judgment and taste.
In separate interviews Mr. Costello and Ms. von Otter discussed their project.
However one describes Elvis Costello's collaboration with the mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter or, for that matter, Mr. Costello's work with the songwriter Burt Bacharach, the jazz guitarist Bill Frisell or the Brodsky String Quartet it is best not to use the word crossover in his presence. He refers to it as "the dreaded C word," and describes the concept as tainted.
"I just say music," he said by telephone from his home in Dublin. " `Let's make some music together.' It's easier, and less loaded with meaning. `Let's make some music, and see if anybody likes it.' "
Mr. Costello and Ms. von Otter took their time considering that proposition; they knew each other for several years before the idea of making an album was floated. Mr. Costello first heard Ms. von Otter in 1989, when his wife, Cait O'Riordan (a former member of the Pogues, a rough-hewn Irish folk-punk band) took him to a staging of Berlioz's "Damnation of Faust" in London. Entranced by Ms. von Otter's performance, he began attending her concerts whenever he could, always sending congratulatory roses backstage. Eventually he arranged a meeting, and they began a friendship based more firmly on his interest in classical music than on her interest in pop.
"It was actually Anne Sofie's husband who first said out loud that we should work together. He said it in a lighthearted way, without an agenda, and to be perfectly honest, it had never occurred to me before he said it."
In 1996 Mr. Costello wrote a song cycle, "Three Distracted Women," for Ms. Otter and the Brodsky String Quartet, with which he had written and recorded a more expansive cycle, "The Juliet Letters," in 1992. "Three Distracted Women" was typically quirky: in the finale, "April in Orbit," the wife of a failed businessman imagines herself to be a cosmonaut traveling in an old spacecraft. "I didn't pick particularly romantic archetypes," Mr. Costello said, "but she was great at getting in and telling the story."
In 1996 the two performed with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra. She sang Richard Strauss; he sang his own songs. Together they sang "My Ship" by Kurt Weill and, on a wintry Stockholm evening, "Baby, It's Cold Outside" by Frank Loesser. Afterward she broached the subject of making a record. Mr. Costello compiled cassettes of songs he thought might suit her voice and personality; he sent them to her, copiously annotated.
"Basically I was explaining the history of recent pop music," he said of his accompanying letters. "I was not assuming any knowledge of the context of some of the songs, and I wasn't leaving anything to chance. Once we got to know each other better, we spoke more colloquially and discussed things in a kind of private shorthand, the way you would with any group of musicians, classical, jazz or rock. And as we established that rapport magically, letters began to arrive from Anne Sofie, all written in a beautiful hand and with very individual thoughts on particular songs."
Meetings followed, during which Mr. Costello and Ms. von Otter played through stacks of pop records in search of material. He was intent on avoiding the standards and show tunes included on so many opera singers' crossover discs. She was pushing for the kind of variety she might bring to a lieder recital, something he discouraged in favor of a more consistently moody feel.
"We had a handful of songs that seemed tailor made for her but which didn't make the final cut," Mr. Costello said, "because when we actually performed them, she didn't feel right. Things like `Here's That Rainy Day' by James Van Heusen, or `How Insensitive' by Antonio Carlos Jobim both beautiful songs. Or `Real Emotional Girl' by Randy Newman, which I wanted because it played against all those horrible `cold Scandinavian' clichés. I wanted to call the album that, but she didn't like the song."
When they reconvened in October, 27 songs were recorded, 18 of which made it to the disc (with a 19th, "You Go to My Head," by Haven Gillespie and J. Fred Coots, on a Japanese edition). The musicians were mostly Swedish, enlisted by Ms. von Otter, although Mr. Costello brought along some colleagues, including the keyboardist Steve Nieve. partnerships sprouted. Mr. Costello wrote lyrics for "Green Song," an instrumental work by Svante Henryson, a cellist and composer who plays on the disc. Two songs are collaborations between Mr. Costello and Fleshquartet, a Swedish string ensemble that plays electric instruments. And when Benny Anderson, formerly of Abba, turned up to play accordion on Tom Waits's "Broken Bicycles," Mr. Costello and Ms. von Otter prevailed upon him to play a piano accompaniment on "Like an Angel Passing Through My Room," a song he wrote for his old band.
"The word ownership was something we discussed a lot," Mr. Costello said. "We had to have songs that she could own, that she could sing without the listener constantly comparing it to other versions. That's one reason we avoided well- known songs. Also, I believe that a song like Brian Wilson's `Don't Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)' deserves to be sung somewhere in the world every night."
"I don't mean to suggest a competition with classical song, but there's no reason to assume that the composers of these songs were taking their job less seriously," he said. "And that's one of the other errors, isn't it, of the dreaded crossover records: the performers often sound as if they don't trust the composer and that they need to illuminate him in some way. And it's a shame, because if they just relaxed, they'd have a lot more fun and wouldn't sound so foolish. Anne Sofie understood that."
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company